A book shop owner is the proprietor of an independent book store which typically sells collectible, niche and out-of-print books.
As of 2010, there were more than 1200 independent book shops in the UK. Whilst the internet has provided an endless mine of information which can be delivered to desktops around the world in seconds, there are many people who much prefer to read the printed word. Persons who use a computer all day at work are reluctant to continue using one at home, and sometimes, it can be tricky to find specific and detailed information on the internet; this is often due to the seemingly endless results which appear in response to the user’s requested search strings.
Independent book stores specialise in providing second-hand, hard-to-source, antique or collectible books, and often choose to specialise in a specific genre. It may be that the shop finds or develops its own interest niche, thereby giving it focussed appeal to persons interested in a given subject. The city of London provides a number of suitable examples, including famous stores for dog owners, Christians, poets, screenwriters and even collectors of Gothic art.
The book shop owner is the person who provides the capital to open or continue to run the independent shop, and with that comes all of the responsibility that is to be expected of a self-employed sole proprietor; the manager must deal with stock acquisition, pricing, exchange and refund, complaints, staffing, accounts, taxation, legislation and general management.
As the take-home pay is derived solely from the owner’s own sales effort, the salary range can vary depending on where the shop is based, what it sells and how successful it is. Comparison of various websites advertising book shops for sale reveals an approximate average turnover of £75,448 for a small specialist shop outside London. This equates to a pre-tax profit of £29,227, giving a margin of a reasonable 38%. This is not all “take-home” pay though; an allowance must be left within the business to pay for shop maintenance, improvement and disaster mitigation. According to the UK organisation, Charity Bags, charity book shops turn over approximately £75,000, giving a balanced perspective of potential earnings for non-charity (sale) book shops in the UK.
- Handle stock acquisition by buying customer books and offering exchanges
- Decide and administer pricing and method of sale (labelling, point-of-sale)
- Organise and categorise books received from suppliers and customers
- Handle customer exchanges, refunds and complaints
- Organise staffing, holiday and sickness cover
- Decide on opening hours and honour them around personal commitments
- Manage day-to-day accounting, sales tax and personal taxation
- Ensure business is conducted with appropriate regard to legislative requirements
A big benefit of becoming a sole proprietor is that it requires no interviews, qualifications or future exams; the candidate draws up a business plan, finds a place from which to trade, capitalises the business and begins trading. Some choose to open specialist book stores after studying a particular subject in detail at university (an archaeological book shop would be an example), but more often than not, the two are not linked. Some proprietors will find that a BTEC or at least part-time college module in sole trading business or business accounting will be useful in facilitating their successful day-to-day management, but otherwise, it is not essential.
- Have a passion and understanding for the specialist subject, if the book shop is to be a specialist store.
- Have a love of books and a desire to help other book enthusiasts
- Be able to recognise and understand the value of customer books and pay an appropriate price
- Good general business skills, including day-to-day accounting and sales promotion
- Be flexible to manage own schedule around opening hours of the shop
- Be able to partake in moderate lifting when restocking
As the workplace is owned by the candidate, it can be transformed into whatever theme, style or environment the proprietor may choose. Modern book shops have internet terminals for the convenience of customers and offer hot drinks too, whilst the traditional view is perhaps of the dusty little village book shop full of hidden literary treasures. It is up to the owner, and to an extent, what the local book-buyer market will tolerate or enjoy.
The job requires regular moderate lifting, so it helps if the candidate is in reasonable health. A book shop is classed as a low-risk environment in terms of health and safety, although standing on a rickety step-ladder whilst leaning across to the adjacent aisle will increase risk; it requires some common sense, as does every workplace. As the book shop will be regularly welcoming members of the public, it is highly recommended that the owner take out a policy for public liability insurance. A Heath and Safety at Work Act poster must also be displayed if the owner employs other people.
Experience within this industry typically relates to those independent store owners who will be trading and buying rare books regularly; it is essential that the proprietor understands the value of what he or she is paying for to ensure the business sees value in its purchasing. Regardless, a book is worth what people will pay for it, and a candidate who can understand and capitalise on this key principal will make margin on each unit sale. This can take time and experience to learn, although it will be made easier if the candidate has a passion for the book shop’s specialist subject, if appropriate.
There are times when a successful, small book shop needs to grow beyond its own four walls due to a limited earnings capacity brought about by small stock holding space; this is when a premises change is required. Caution should be exercised here, as many regular customers visit a shop repeatedly because they like it; moving to swish new premises three miles across town can put paid to a regular customer base. “Career progression” in this sense, needs to take place at the discretion of the shop owner on a cost-reward basis.
This article focuses on independent book shops, which are usually not part of chains. Major bricks-and-mortar employers in the world of books include Blackwell’s, Waterstone’s and WH Smith, with Amazon the leader for on-line sales and recruitment volume. These large, well-known chains are beyond the scope of this feature.
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Also known as…
- Specialist book shop owner
- Bookstore owner
What’s it really like?
Shaun Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop, the largest second hand book store in Scotland, and the oldest book shop in Wigtown.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
Opportunity. It was a case of being offered the right premises in the right place. Wigtown itself has been designated Scotland’s National Book Town, and this property is the oldest shop in the town. We have a mile of shelving holding 65,000 books. We also have a self-catering converted croft just across the road accommodating visiting guests over night.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of ‘exercise’?
Yes, actually. We have around 100 books brought in for exchange or sale each day, so a good portion of the day is spend on dealing with that. We also clear large private collections, and this can be incredibly time-consuming.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
Buying or acquiring books – that is what it’s all about. We offer a lot of support to local festivals and activities too, and these are very popular locally.
What do you like most about the job?
Being my own boss. I guess this is the key reason that people choose to be self-employed. It has its own problems inherent too, though.
What do you like least about the job?
Not being able to take time off. We are a very famous book shop, and we have international visitors even, who take their own time out to visit us; we need to honour our opening hours, and we make those as welcoming as we can. Obviously, this creates problems if you need some time out.
What are the key responsibilities?
Paying bills, and paying staff wages. Staff need to be paid on time; this is paramount for any proprietor of their own business. The bills are a constant threat, if you want to look at it that way, but our turnover is such that we do not encounter problems; as I said, this is an incredibly popular and well-known shop!
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg A Levels?
None at all. The joy of being your own boss!
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
It depends, on your reputation, the area you are trading in, and the specifics of your business and your clientele.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Be cautious – the number of second-hand book shops in the UK is decreasing every day thanks to online selling and e-readers.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Just to be hard-working, and to have enthusiasm for what you are personally trying to achieve. This is a fantastic job and lifestyle with many opportunities, but even more potential pitfalls. This is true of many a sole-proprietor type of business, but the loss of independent bookstores on a daily basis has been well publicised.